Welcome to a bitter-sweet travel-writing moment when a future-fave is given away. Lisbon, Porto and The Algarve are typical Portuguese destinations, which is why Alentejo is so attractive by contrast. Turns out the unpopular kid at school has something to be proud of after all.
On the first day we drove through the dry, straw-coloured countryside everything just felt right with the world. We only realised why later on an eco-walk near the town of Sines, where Vasco Da Gama was born. The fact is, you can find yourself in unspoiled nature without having to battle major hordes to do so. It’s sparsely populated, understated and easy to navigate. We recommend you use a hire car for this trip. The public transport is shaky at best.
This South-West Atlantic coastline is edged by literally hundreds of miles of pristine white beaches; whilst the interior is endlessly knotted with sweeping olive groves and cork plantations. Small towns are laid out sparsely as if to give everyone enough legroom in the heat of summer. Mostly homes are painted white with yellow or blue detailing round the door and window frames.
Top Tip: Check out an organisation called Casas Brancas (casasbrancas.pt) who have committed to maintaining this vision of sustainability and natural purity. They have connected various mellow activities such as walking and mountain-biking with decent accommodation to match.
Paradoxically, what most people need to clean out their mental pipes with a good flush of mega-stress. When you’re five miles above the earth, hurtling towards some seriously hard granite, you’re not thinking about what ‘Martin in IT’ said last week.
With this in mind, we visited Skydive Europe at Figueira de Cavaleiros, mid-Alentejo. The school has a good reputation, a brand new plane and instructors who make gnarly gestures like adrenalin junkies worldwide, but just in Portuguese. So what of the jump itself? Well, you are strapped onto another dude’s stomach, which is mildly intimate but not what concerns you as the engine roars, the runway drops away, and avgas fills your nostrils. Ten minutes of aforesaid instructor high-fives and whoosh! … you’re out the plane.
Recipe for cerebral rinse: Take one shocked wail of a child, a very cold flapping face and three whole minutes of reflective but exhilarating terror (‘I actually might die here’). Chuck all ingredients into the brain and blend on eleven. Before you know it, there’s a sound like your dad whipping the cover off a Ute and total silence, blissful suspension and the stunning horizon stretching out in every direction. Do it before you die. It’s that simple.
For those who prefer their adrenalin via watery tubes, you might need to know that the world’s biggest wave was recently surfed off the coast of Alentejo. Whilst you may not be quite at this level yet, it goes some way to establish the surf-cred of the area. Once again though, the real charm of surf destinations like Sao Torpes, is that it’s relatively undeveloped. In this area, you can go on self-guided surfaris and camp by the beach. Or if you’re new to surfing, join one of a smattering of friendly little surf schools whose wetsuits will ease you into Atlantic temperatures. Add just the right sprinkling of relatively new beach bars and once again its understated coastal perfection.
Top Tip: We ate at a restaurant called Arte & Sal in Paiai de Morgavel, S.Torpes. Best fresh mango, sardines and ice cream ever. We’d travel to the region just to go there again. www.facebook.com/RestauranteArteeSal
There are poignant connections between the agriculture of the area and the culture of the Alentejan people. For example, cork is the main ancestral crop and about one third of all wine corks in the world come from Portugal. We challenge you to find something the Alentejans haven’t tried to make from cork; try wedding dresses to handbags and even UGG boots. Each cork tree needs 25 years before it can be harvested and after that only every nine years. So whilst our guide tells us Alentejans are the butt of all the ‘lazy jokes’ in Portugal, we think perhaps they are simply very patient.
Another natural export central to the soul of the people are the gorgeous Lusitano horses. They were originally bred for Portuguese bull-fighting, which is performed mainly on horse-back. They are thus powerful beasts, with brave hearts and lightning-quick reflexes. As Portuguese bullfighting becomes more a display of horsemanship than a blood sport, Lusitanos are more often found in show jumping or dressage. We met a family who runs an Eco-hotel with Lusitano breeding program. We were treated to a display of Pamela, the hotel owner’s wife performing a dance with her chestnut-coloured long-haired steed to classical Guitar played by husband, Rui. Olive oil is another major export from the region. Next time you’re in Sainsburys check the labels – 60% will be from Portugal.
Whilst this article has praised wild Alentejo, Beja and Evora are both small cities worth visiting for at least a night each to experience local hospitality. The economy is under severe strain at the moment, so tourists are very welcome and the prices quite sensible. If you’re a history buff, engage a local guide for a truly fascinating ride. The country on the elbow of Europe has at turns been invaded by Moors, Romans and Spaniards, each culture leaving its mark on the language, architecture and religion. Some of the most famous maritime adventures were begun here in Alentejo and locals even claim that Christopher Columbus was actually Portuguese.
Top Tip: Portugal has a system of Pousadas, which are basically historical buildings turned into modern accommodation. Use them. www.pousadas.pt
So our advice is to take a week at pretty much any time in the year, hire a car and build yourself a trip with a combo of chilled out, active and cultured. (Sun shines 300 days in the year) We know you’ll love it. In fact we’ll go as far as to say that if you don’t, you probably haven’t followed the clean care instructions properly.
5 Connections to check out
- Winefarm: www.malhadinhanova.pt
- City Guide: [email protected]
- Surf School in São Torpes: www.costazulsurf.com/
- Eco Guide: [email protected]
- Mountainbiking: www.portugalbestcycling.com
Sunvil Discovery (tel: 020 8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk) offers tailormade itineraries across the Alentejo. Our itinerary costs from £854 pp (two sharing) including return flights (Heathrow) with TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com), seven nights’ B&B accommodation staying four nights at Naturarte Campo in São Luís, and three nights at Hotel M’Ar de Ar Aqueduto in Evora, and car hire. Activities extra – book through Sunvil. For further information about the Alentejo, see www.visitalentejo.pt.